A National Park Service official who oversees the Appalachian Trail is scheduled to testify this morning that a proposed wind farm near Sugarloaf Mountain would have a dramatic effect on one of the most remote and scenic sections of the 2,175-mile hiking path.
Pamela Underhill’s testimony is certain to frustrate some observers, including some as far away as Washington, D.C.
After Underhill delivered a similar message last summer about a larger version of the wind-farm proposal, a California congressman called her in for questioning and, in a letter to the secretary of the interior, questioned why someone at Underhill’s level was allowed to take a stand against renewable energy.
That letter, which came to light in the past week, was immediately circulated to officials in Maine with a note questioning the credibility of Underhill’s testimony.
The struggle over what is now called the Black Nubble Wind Farm has become intense. Accusations of bias and behind-the- scenes influence led one member of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission to recuse himself from the process at the start of the multiday hearing Wednesday.
The congressional reaction to Underhill’s testimony last summer shows that the political pressures swirling around the wind farm go well beyond Maine’s borders.
The National Park Service’s position, by all accounts, had an important influence on LURC during its review of the original plan, called the Redington wind farm.
Underhill, who testifies in uniform and speaks unequivocally, said that her agency has supported renewable energy projects near the trail. But this one, she said, would dramatically change a rare section of what is “a national treasure of immense proportion. a gift to the American people – past, present and future – from the American people.”
CONGRESS GETS INVOLVED
Underhill said on Wednesday that her testimony in the proceeding a year ago was approved by officials in the director’s office, in keeping with Park Service policy.
Soon after the hearing on Redington, however, she was interviewed by staff members of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform. The chairman at that time was Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
The committee wanted to know by what authority she had taken a stand against the Maine wind farm. On Oct. 19, 2006, Issa sent a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne that began: “The United States is in the midst of an energy crisis.”
He reminded Kempthorne of an executive order signed by President Bush directing federal agencies to accelerate energy- related projects, “not to impose additional obstacles,” and to put energy policy matters in the hands of Cabinet-level executives.
Issa asked for an explanation of why a park manager or deputy director could make the decision to oppose a wind farm because of “the threat of an eyesore.”
Issa’s spokesman, Frederick Hill, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that questioning the actions of federal employees is a fundamental part of congressional oversight. “The letter sent in this instance was neither unusual nor unique,” he wrote. “Given that one can view miles and miles of wind turbines in California and other states, it’s dubious for a representative of a Federal agency to say such turbines in a different state are visually unacceptable.”
Issa and his state are connected in other ways to Black Nubble.
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The major investor and partner in the development company behind the $110 million project is Edison Mission Energy, a subsidiary of Edison International. Both companies are based in southern California – near, but not in, Issa’s congressional district, which includes northern San Diego.
Issa is a frequent recipient of campaign contributions from Edison International’s political action committee. The PAC gave Issa a total of $33,500 between September 2000 and June of this year, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Issa’s spokesman did not directly respond to a question about the financial contributions, but pointed out that the congressman has been active on a variety of energy issues.
Issa’s letter last fall reached the Land Use Regulation Commission on the day it was dated, Oct. 19. Jeffrey Thaler, an attorney for the developers, attached it to an e-mail, saying it appeared that Underhill did not have authority to testify against the project “all the way from the top,” as she said she did during the hearing.
Thaler said on Wednesday that he believed the letter contradicted Underhill’s statement and was important enough to share. He said he could not remember who gave the letter to him or how he got it so fast.
“I was sent the letter by somebody in Washington,” he said. “It was public information.”
Catherine Carroll, LURC’s director, sent Thaler’s e-mail and Issa’s letter to members of the commission the next morning. She included a note saying she did not think the panel could consider the correspondence unless the record was formally reopened. The letter was not sent to any other parties in the process, or to Underhill.
Carroll wrote back to commission members on Nov. 2 to say they should disregard the letter about Underhill. The Attorney General’s Office had learned about it, she said, and told her it was not part of the record.
The assistant attorney general at the time, Jeff Pidot, said Wednesday that it was clear the letter was political in nature and outside the proceeding. He said he considered its circulation a technical error by the staff.
The letter became more widely known only because attorneys have been probing through the commission’s correspondence, looking for bias or outside influence in the Black Nubble case.
The Interior Department, meanwhile, did respond to Issa’s letter, according to Underhill.
It told Issa that it balances energy needs with the “precious landscapes” it is supposed to protect. It also said that Underhill’s testimony was “appropriate and customary,” she said.
Underhill watched some of the first day of the hearing Wednesday at the Sugarloaf/USA ski resort. She is scheduled to testify around 9:40 a.m. today.
Her testimony will be much the same as last year’s because the revised project would still have a severe impact on the trail, she said.
“I’m paid by the American taxpayers to protect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail,” she said. The trail is only one factor for the land commission, she said.
Underhill is not sure whether there will be more fallout this time. She said her testimony has been cleared through the park service.
But while attending the hearing on Wednesday, she got a call from Washington asking her to send a copy of her testimony to an assistant secretary in the Interior Department.
She could not say why she got the request. But, she said, “It’s never happened to me before.”
By John Richardson
20 September 2007
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